Reservoir depletion forces Madras farmers to leave fields fallow

September 7, 2019
Reservoir depletion forces Madras farmers to leave fields fallow

Wickiup Reservoir is at 11% of capacity as irrigation season draws to a close 

By Michale Kohn

For the second year in a row, Madras farmer Phil Fine has left a quarter of his fields fallow amid water restrictions caused by low levels at Wikiup Reservoir.

With a water crisis expected to continue another year, he doesn’t think his crop yields will expand anytime soon.

“I will leave current fields fallow. I will be sitting on the same amount of ground. We are going to draw Wickiup, and it’s going to be really low again,” said Fine, owner of Phil Fine Farms, which produces carrot seed, bluegrass seed, alfalfa and other crops.

The amount of water in Wickiup is just 11% of capacity and in steady decline, according to data reported by the U.S. Department of the Interior website. As water flow to farmers is reduced, the ability to plant crops across entire farms dwindles. As the junior water right holder, farmers in the North Unit Irrigation District near Madras and Culver receive less water compared to right holders in other irrigation districts.

The reservoir was just 66% full at the start of this year’s irrigation season, so farmers knew it was going to be a tough year ahead.

“It was the lowest elevation or capacity starting the irrigation season in the reservoir’s history. We had to reduce allocation to farmers in significant amounts this year, and we will end the year with the reservoir at very low levels,” said Mike Britton, general manager for the North Unit Irrigation District.

While several years of prolonged drought have had the greatest impact on the reservoir level, the Endangered Species Act has been another factor as it requires more water be released into the Deschutes in spring and fall to support the Oregon spotted frog.

Most farmers in the North Unit left 25% to 30% of their fields fallow this year due to the reduced amounts of water in the reservoir, Britton said.

“It’s hard to sustain a business when you are losing a quarter of your business year after year. There is concern that this will be a continuing trend should dry weather patterns continue in addition to Endangered Species Act demands,” Britton said.

Wickiup was built in the 1940s specifically for use by the North Unit Irrigation District. The canal that carries water to the unit begins its journey at Riverview Park in Bend and continues to Madras and Culver, where it’s used to irrigate fields of potatoes, onions, alfalfa, carrot seed and other crops.

As of Thursday, the amount of water in Wickiup stood at 22,102 acre feet. The reservoir, the second-largest in Oregon with an area of 17.5 miles, has a capacity to hold back 200,000 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is the amount of water necessary to cover an acre of land with a foot of water.

Two considerably wet winters are needed to fill Wickiup, said Kyle Gorman, south central region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, which overseas water use in the state.

The heavy snowfall in Central Oregon in February wasn’t enough to recharge the groundwater supply — an important source of water for Wickiup — thanks to drought in Central Oregon over the majority of this decade.

“We need abundant snowfall in the mountains with a really wet winter to get the reservoir refilled, and it will take a two-year wet cycle to do it,” Gorman said. A year from now, if the reservoir can be 25% to 40%, it has a good chance of filling up by April 2021, he added.

Old motors, discarded couches and other debris were found on the lake bed a year ago when the water level dropped to historic lows.

Going forward, infrastructure overhauls to make farms more water efficient, as well as water marketing programs, are some options planned to conserve and share water.

“The long-term solution to meeting water needs in the basin will include using as many tools as possible,” said Kate Fitzpatrick, program director for Deschutes River Conservancy, a Bend-based nonprofit whose mission is to restore stream flow and improve water quality in the Deschutes River Basin.

The conservancy is working with the irrigation districts on developing the water marketing programs, which provide economic incentives for water users to voluntarily use less water and “share” it with other irrigators and the river.

Piping the open canals to conserve water is another plan under consideration by the irrigation districts. Open canals can lose significant amounts of water to seepage and evaporation before the end users can tap the water supply.

Costs to pipe the canals would be funded by federal and state grants, and may partially be shouldered by the users, Britton said.

But the high costs to pipe the canals would be offset with greater crop yields, said Britton. Lower yields are already having an impact on the local economy.

“Jefferson County’s economy is agricultural-based so there’s an economic ripple effect in terms of crop production, buying seeds, equipment, fuel, fertilizer and other farm inputs. If it continues for years to come there will be an economic impact. I am sure there is some impact today as we speak,” Britton said.

For now, farmers will need to make hard choices about what crops to water and what fields to leave fallow, said Fine, the carrot seed farmer.

“You can’t water your crops two thirds. If we don’t have enough water, we have to pick and choose which crops to water,” Fine said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818,

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An aerial view of a body of water.